Duncan Hothersall reviews yesterday’s Scottish budget and sees an SNP failing to use its powers, but still fooling enough of the people enough of the time.


Derek Mackay presented his budget to parliament yesterday and, reading the coverage, one has to be grudgingly impressed with the SNP’s ability to fool enough of the people enough of the time to get away with the same cheap trick every year. They could use their powers and the available cash – including significant reserves built up from repeated underspends – to end the two-child benefits cap and reverse cuts to essential public services. Instead they pretend it’s not within their power.

The cheering section is ready and primed to blame the English – sorry, I mean “Westminster” – and yes, it’s true that these abhorrent policies originate with the current Tory government. But the Scotland Act puts the power in the Finance Secretary’s hands to do things differently. He is choosing not to use it.

TV reports last night, briefer than they would ordinarily be thanks to the surreal goings on in the Conservative Party, focused on the tiny increases in the tax take due to that most timid of decisions, the frozen threshold. This is, of course, just how the SNP likes it, because they can sit snugly between Labour, demaning more progressive tax to fund better public services, and the Tories, outraged that a tax differential means the richest Scots now pay a little more.

But the coverage almost universally ignores the elephant in the room: the Scottish Government, our great progressive beacon, loudly claims for eleven months of the year that it opposes the harshest of Tory policies, but at budget time when they could act they won’t reverse them.

And let’s be clear, it’s abhorrent to leave the two-child cap in place when you have the power to remove it. It is causing hardship and demonising those least able to fight back. But if you take morals out of the equation and focus purely on the politics, the SNP’s approach makes perfect sense. When your main shtick is “Standing up for Scotland” against the bad guys in England, you need the the bad guys to cause Scots pain. If you just use your devolved powers to remove the pain you’re in danger of proving that devolution works and independence is unnecessary. And the party whose single aim is independence can’t have that now, can they.

The SNP’s deliberate approach to not use powers in order to ensure Scots suffer enough to vote for independence used to go further than benefits. It used to stretch to local government spending too, where in past years cuts in the block grant have been more than quadrupled when passed on to councils. But this year there’s a new approach. Oh, the cuts are still there, of course. But now, in collusion with the Greens, the SNP simply lie about their existence.

Yesterday the Scottish Government proclaimed a £198m increase in revenue funding for councils. But according to analysis by COSLA, in reality this is a cut of £175m. £210m of council spending is ringfenced for the extension of childcare hours, and £163 more of centrally defined commitment means councils actually have less to spend on core services like education – you know, Nicola’s top priority. Similarly the SNP’s claim was an increase in capital grants of £207m. But this included £150m of reprofiled money due back to councils from previous settlements, and with a further £75m ringfenced, the reality is a decrease of £17m.

So when the SNP say they are properly funding councils, and their little helpers the Greens claim to have won concessions, it’s really just smoke and mirrors.

Here’s the thing: this approach of lying about cuts and blaming Westminster for the SNP’s failure to act will continue as long as it is effective. And right now it is highly effective. The SNP is polling a consistent and comfortable double figures lead over its opposition.

And the fact that Scots are suffering due to their failure to use the powers they have will not worry the SNP one jot. The cause is independence, not decent governance, and for the nationalists the cause has always been more important than the people.